Tahlequah Daily Press

Features

October 3, 2012

Experts: Bats provide ecological balance

TAHLEQUAH — Most people associate bats with Halloween or some other blood-curdling portrayal.

According to experts, though, the reality is we need more bats in the area.

October is Bat Appreciation Month, and without these often misunderstood creatures of the night, life could be even more frightening, said Northeastern State University Associate Biology Professor Dr. Erik Terdal.

“Bats eat many insects every night, including insects that are crop pests or that transmit diseases. Really, life would be expensive, dangerous and unpleasant without healthy bat populations,” he said. “There are no downsides to having bats in the area, although many people fear for them no reason.”

Chiroptophobia is what is known as the fear of bats, according to the Discovery Channel’s HowStuffWorks.com. The only mammal capable of flight has been depicted by Hollywood as a bloodsucker that arrives to deliver death and disease. There are three species of bats in Latin America whose source of food is found in the blood of animals like birds, horses and pigs, but human blood isn’t usually on the menu.

People also fear bats due to the belief the creatures carry rabies, but a 2011 study conducted by the University of Calgary revealed that less than one percent of the average bat population carries the viral disease.

Blood-sucking bats, or the common vampire bat, hairy-legged vampire bat or the white-winged vampire bat, do not call Cherokee County home, much less any state in the union. Terdal said the vespertilio myotis of the diverse and extensive breed of bats within the vespertilionidae family is the county’s most prevalent creature of the night.

“Most of the bats in Cherokee County are the small, mouse-eared bats. There are a few different kinds, and they look similar,” he said. “Another common bat is the big brown bat. There are several bat species in total in Cherokee County.They live here because of the good habitat: caves to roost in and hibernate, and plenty of insects to eat.”

And in comparison to the purple martin, bats eat more insects than the North American swallow, said Cherokee County Extension Office Agriculture Educator Roger Williams.

“I don’t know anything real specific about the bats in the area, but I do know they’re good and they catch more insects than purple martins,” he said. “I’ve heard of bats getting into people’s homes and getting into the attic. You just have to have a little opening for them to get in, and it costs a bunch to get them eradicated when that happens.”

According to the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, all bats living in Oklahoma feed on insects like moths, mosquitoes, cucumber/June beetles, leafhoppers and scorpions.

Bats are noted as the only major predator of these night-flying insects with some eating more than 3,000 mosquitoes each night.

Oklahoma has 22 species of bats; several are migratory and leave the state for nesting, or winter hibernation, according to the ODWC.

“The Cherokee County bats hibernate in the caves,” said Terdal. “In western Oklahoma, there is another bat species, the Mexican free-tailed bat, that migrates to the tropics for the winter, then fly back in the spring.”

Fall is mating season for bats in the state, and the females are currently readying themselves for the delayed fertilization state of the spring birthing process, said Terdal.

“This is one of the fascinating things about bats. The bats mate in the fall as they gather in caves to hibernate. Females store sperm and use it to fertilize their eggs in late winter,” he said. “So, the baby bats are born in the spring. That is the best time, as there are many insects available then for the mothers to eat. They use the insect energy to make milk for their babies.”

Though bats can present a useful purpose, serious bat population declines have been observed in the state by research scientists in recent years, according to the ODWC. Loss of habitat fromthings like surface-mining operations or cave commercialization, vandals needlessly killing and disturbing bats in materinty caves and during hibernation and bats consuming insects sprayed with agricultural pesticides have been identified as the three main causes for the decline. The Indiana, gray and Ozark big-eared bats are now on the federal list of endangered species.

“The most important thing people in Cherokee County can do to help bats is to leave their caves alone,” said Terdal. “Do not go in them, especially in the fall when bats are mating, in the winter when they are hibernating and in the spring when the young are being born.”

Bat houses, which can be placed at the top of a pole similar to a bird house, can be constructed to help support and protect the species.

A successul bat house, according to the ODWC, depends on many factors. In Oklahoma, a bat house must be located a quarter mile or less from a stream, river or pond larger than three acres. It must receive no more or less than four hours of daily sun.  

 

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